One day a few weeks ago, I drove over to Atlanta for lunch. When I returned, there was a message on my desk, “Richard Appleby, Hawaii, was here.”
There was an immediate flashback to Jacksonville, 1975, which left me with both a lift and a downer.
The lift came when there were immediate thoughts of his heroic end around touchdown pass which enabled Georgia to defeat Florida in the old Gator Bowl — but was overwhelmed with disappointment that I wasn’t in when he passed through Athens. There was no phone number, no contact information, and by the time I discovered a phone number, he had returned to his lair in the Pacific.
Remembering my friendship with Richard and my affection for one of the most sensational plays in the Vince Dooley era, there was a sentimental stir with my emotions as I paused in my office alone and in solitude while seeing him, in my mind’s eye, run to his right toward the east stands, pulling the Florida defense in his direction, suddenly coming to a stop and dropping his right arm down near the turf — like a pitcher coming with a fast ball. He planted his back foot and arched a long and timely overhand pass (it had something on it, and sailed as beautifully as a pass from Johnny Unitas would have in the great quarterback’s heyday) into the hands of a wide open Gene Washington. Final score: Georgia 10, Florida 7.
It was a stunning upset. Florida had been heavily favored coming into the game with its vaunted broken bone offense scoring 29 points per game — rather exceptional for the times. The Gators were scary. Coaches always sing a worried song, but on Friday with kickoff less than 24 hours away, I have never seen Erk Russell so uptight.
“They are so good on offense that we might be embarrassed,” Erk said. Florida dominated defenses that year in record setting fashion. The Gators had the capability of scoring by driving the ball down your throat or hitting you with a devastating bomb out of its versatile wishbone formation which had been tweaked to accommodate a dangerous passing attack. They steamrolled defenses with their versatile offense, but they were also a homerun team. On top of that, the Gators had one of the best defenses in the Southeastern Conference.
The late Bill Pace was Georgia’s offensive coordinator. He always had a special play in his pocket to use when the situation warranted it. He felt confident that if Erk could keep it close, there might be an opportunity to come with a big play at the right time that could be the difference in the game. That play would be the end around pass from Richard Appleby.
Richard was a rangy tight end (6-3, 212), who played sandlot games almost every day, growing up in Athens. He was strong armed, there was thunder in his throwing motion, and he could “hum” it — he could throw an arching long ball which had a tight spiral which carried forward with finesse and alacrity.
The Georgia-Florida game was tight from start to finish. Neither team could gain the advantage. The best Georgia could do for three-plus quarters was a field goal. The Bulldog defense wasn’t too shabby, holding the Florida offense to only seven points.
A couple of times during the game, Pace set up what would become the winning pass by having Appleby run the end around without noticeable success. The play didn’t fool Florida which must have brought about a certain smugness by the defense when Pace called for the end around late in the game. This time it came about at the most propitious and critical moment.
When Pace decided to pull the trigger on the end around pass, he went over to the bench to talk to Richard while the Georgia punt return team was on the field. The message was, “Get ready, we are going to run the end around pass in our next series.” Richard would have a classic comment about his pass after the game, but there is a sidebar which enhanced his classic and humorous punch line. Please stand by.
The seventies were the era when Georgia traveled to road games by flying two prop-driven planes out of Ben Epps Field which meant that the traveling party was reduced to the lowest possible number. Sports Illustrated sent a writer to cover the game, but he was convinced that Florida was going to slam the Bulldogs. He spent all his time in Gainesville with the Gators.
When the game was over, the writer asked Coach Vince Dooley if he could fly home with the Bulldogs to whom he had given little pre-game thought. There literally was no seat on the plane to take on one additional passenger, beyond the official party.
The plan was for the writer to come to Athens early Sunday to finish his story. Realizing there would be no way he could ask the heroes of the game to be available early Sunday morning to accommodate the magazine’s reporter, Vince asked if I would record several of the players including Appleby, Washington, Glynn Harrison and a few others.
Not sure if we still have the tape in our archives, but Richard’s comments were classic. When I interviewed Appleby, he told me about Pace coming to the Georgia bench late in the fourth quarter and telling him that he would soon be throwing the end around pass. I asked, “Were you nervous?”
With the widest of grins, Richard said, “You could say I was a little bit nervous, but you could also say I rose to the occasion.” His teammates howled with laughter.
Richard’s illuminating comment didn’t reach the pages of Sports Illustrated. In fact, it didn’t gain any traction with the local media, but I can tell you that his teammates reacted with such raucous laughter that it became one of the most memorable and unforgettable scenes of my Georgia career.
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]